Lifestyle Group Services’ Chris Airey likes the cloud, loves scanning and thinks the future will be like Minority Report.
Chris Airey is the director of business change and IT at Crewe-based Lifestyle Services Group, a company which protects our mobiles and gadgets against theft and mishaps by providing insurance to large financial service institutions.
He has worked in IT for more than 20 years for companies such as Vertex, Littlewoods, Ford and RR Donnelley, but his favourite IT project wasn’t about the technology!
He admires Jonathan Ives, thinks scanning is the greatest technology ever made and harbours a desire for a simpler country life and a passion for beekeeping.
Who do you work for, how long have you been in IT and what are your areas of expertise?
Lifestyle Services Group is an insurance BPO group, and we provide gadget and mobile phone insurance to big financial service institutions like Barclays, Lloyds and the Co-operative.
I’ve been in IT since 1990, so 22 years, and my background is really strategy, architecture and solutions. I’ve done programme management, systems analysis and some coding, but I’ve been primarily a designer, I guess.
I’ve been an IT director/CIO since 2005 at a company called RR Donnelley, which is a New York Stock Exchange business. I went in as an IT Director in one of their divisions and was made European CIO.
Do you have a particular favourite project that you’ve worked on?
In 1998, Littlewoods merged its Index stores, the home shopping business and the old Littlewoods chain stores into a single business.
We did an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) implementation in six months and we located the whole project team, so business people, IT people, Oracle consultants, etc. in a building in Birkenhead. We had about 100 people collocated for six months and it was just fantastic because everybody was together. The usual lifecycle thing didn’t happen because everybody was sitting next to each other.
It probably wasn’t a technology high, but it was the best project because everybody was all in it together. It was a good social experience.
What technology were you involved with ten years ago?
That would have been at Vertex, I was working in customer management. We were building capability to do tech to retail services out of the box and to do a lot of CRM. We were bidding for Westminster City Council and places like that.
So the technology was telephony, Vertex’s own billing solution called GBS.
What do you expect to be using in ten years time?
I suspect we’ll be using things a little bit like Minority Report, where we’ll be able to move data around on touchscreens. I think all of the integration and those things will be worked out by a computer. One screen will move process blocks around, one screen moves data structures around and the computer will do the rest.
I think it will look a lot like meeting room smartboards. It will be ‘super-iPad like’ smartboards where you can look at the data on the whiteboards and the system comes out at the end.
What’s your favourite technology ever made?
I’d say that my favourite technology is scanners. I sort of came into this industry and it was all about barcodes and scanning and you sort of realise actually, in logistics how important the humble scanner is.
It may sound sad, but once you know all that, you then go into the supermarket, you’re scanning when you stock, scanning when you pay, you scan on that infuriating self-scanning machine. So the most prevalent useful technology is the barcode and scanner. You can look at things like ID chips, but the thing that’s served us for thirty years is the boring old barcode and the scanner.
We now scramble barcodes and make them QR codes. They’re just sexed up barcodes, the Emperor’s new clothes, if you like.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
In the past, you had to have a lot of management in technology because it was big customisable systems or ERPs or big software development builds. You had lots of project managers, business analysts, programme managers and programme directors. I actually think that with the technology we expect to use in ten years, you won’t need that anymore.
You need process consultants, process engineers and people who can visualise a solution. Shapers are going to be more important in the future. A lot of people believe that process gets you the right results and I think the paradigm shift in the future is that ‘what you envisage is the result you will get’. I think ‘people change’ is the biggest issue in IT departments.
I’m not saying that there’s not room in the next twenty, thirty years for lots of process driven project managers, there will be in companies that still run mainframes, your COBOL systems and all that kind of stuff. There’ll be plenty of work, but I really think there’s going to be a two or three speed set of IT departments.
Are you for the cloud, or are you a cloud sceptic?
I’m totally into the cloud, as long as I know where it’s hosted. Because I work for a financial services organisation, data sovereignty is vital. So cloud thinking is vital for me, because it allows me to benchmark suppliers, services, price and performance. If a company is selling cloud solutions, I know that they’re thinking about things like multi-tenancy, so I might actually get the value of a shared service, because they think like that and set up like that.
I will probably always in financial services go for a private cloud, with a guarantee where it is. So I’ve had to go with Microsoft Exchange in the cloud recently. I wanted to go for Google, but Google won’t geo-fence anything in the European Union at our scale.
Amazon Web Services is more interesting because you can make sure you stay in European data protection land. I have to know where emails are because there might be customer data in there, or credit card information in them.
I’ll probably end up with a hybrid situation with some services like data storage. As long as I know it’s in Europe, I don’t really care where it is. When processing my customer database, I absolutely need to know where it is.
What’s your budget outlook going forward?
I’d say it’s flat. We’re going to be spending less and less on developing software, because we’re moving to a SaaS model. I’ll probably be increasing what I spend on infrastructure and related services because we’re going to be increasingly international, so I need to up the game in that space to refresh.
For development I’ll be looking at low cost technologies to do more for the same amount of money, in particular because we have a new chief executive and working under a new business strategy, looking for growth. If we were just in the UK, I’d expect to be cutting next year, but I expect it’ll be flat.
Who is your tech hero and who is your tech villain?
Sadly it’s an Apple cliché, but I’ll probably go for Jonathan Ives. The design makes a difference and the consumerisation of IT that he has enabled has put a lot of pressure on IT departments to stop being so boring.
In terms of villain, Larry Ellison – it’s not because I disagree with him buying companies, but its more that a lot could be done to create a better platform with what he’s bought.
And finally, what did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a gardener. My uncle had a nice orchard and I used to go there and do things like beekeeping at the weekend. He had a nice country life and I kind of thought that would be a nice job, to do proper gardening.
Beekeeping is trendy now; it’s in the newspapers how people want to save the bees with beekeeping on roofs in New York and places like that. My uncle was a member of Cheshire Beekeepers’ Association and they’d have things like get togethers at his house and conventions.
It was just a completely different world to what you end up doing in technology, it was idealistic really.
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